Publicity stunts have been around since the dawn of marketing. One could argue that these stunts are harmful to a company’s reputation, however one could also make the argument that the entire purpose of the stunt is to get people talking about the company, and if that happens (whether positively or negatively) then it is a success.
Take for example what Taco Bell did on April Fools Day in 1996 in The New York Times. They decided to run a headline that read “Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell.” The ad went on to explain that the company had “bought” the famous monument and would be renaming it the ‘Taco Liberty Bell.’ Thousands of customer complaints rolled into both Taco Bell and the National Historic Park in Philadelphia. Many consumers were extremely upset about what they had read until they realized that it was April Fools Day and the entire thing was a joke. Now, you may think that this ridiculous stunt would have hurt the company (seemingly disrespecting a national historic landmark), however, revenue increased by approximately $500,000-$600,000 a day for the next few days. The explanation: this ad got people talking about Taco Bell. That’s all it took to increase revenue. Simple as that.
To the contrary, another case to consider is the infamous Cartoon Network “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” publicity campaign in the City of Boston that took place in 2007. This involved placing small electronic “signs” depicting one of the show’s main characters in various places around the city. When citizens began noticing the signs, they immediately notified the authorities and a citywide bomb scare took effect. After all was said and done, Turner Broadcasting and the marketing company who came up with the idea were fined in excess of $2 million because of the backlash created by the stunt. It DID get people talking about the show but was it worth $2 million?
Social media has also brought about a whole new era of publicity stunts. From JCPenney’s famous “drunk tweets” during the Super Bowl to Chipotle’s faked Twitter hack on their company’s 20th Anniversary. Some of these publicity stunts were successful in raising revenue and interest in the company, however they also jeopardized consumer trust in the company. Was it worth it in the long run? I guess you, the consumer, can be the judge of that one.